Stories are important.
I’ve always thought so. And I was delighted to hear William Ury say the same thing, in a talk about Abraham’s Path.
Abraham’s Path (the Masar Ibrahim al Khalil in Arabic) is a walking route in the Middle East that, when the first stage is complete, will run some 1,200 kilometres through many places traditionally associated with Abraham (Ibrahim) and his children. At the moment, people can—and have—walked sections in Jordan, Palestine, Turkey and Israel.
It’s not an ancient pilgrimage route, but it is based on 4,000-year-old stories. And these tales of Abraham are part of the shared heritage of more than 3 billion Jews, Christians and Muslims around the world.
There are a number of stories about Abraham, some more ambiguous than others. But most importantly for the Abraham Path Initiative, Abraham, who walked across part of the Middle East with his family, was hospitable to strangers who showed up at his home.
According to William Ury, who came up with the idea for Abraham’s Path and has walked parts of the route, many villages along the route that offer incredible hospitality—and they associate it with Abraham’s tradition.
Stories are important.
The story of Abraham, Ury says, can help create a shared identity among the peoples of different faiths and nationalities along the Abraham’s Path. And the path is starting to bring tourism, which has already created jobs and will lead to a shared economy.
As Ury says, it not a solution to conflict in the Middle East, but it is—literally—a first step.
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Of course, stories aren’t inherently positive.
The same story that brings one group together can cause dissension or violence between groups. In Medieval Europe, the story of Saint James (Santiago) inspired Christian countries to war.
This was the era of Santiago Matamoros, or Saint James the Moor-Slayer, who helped unite the Christian armies and symbolically led the reconquista—the Christian “reconquest” of the Iberian Peninsula from the Arabs who had lived there for several centuries. He is commonly pictured on a horse, holding a sword and trampling the dark-skinned “infidels” underfoot.
It’s not a pretty picture.
But there was an ideal of peace associated with earlier medieval pilgrimage.
A poem recorded in the La Pretiosa manuscript says about the Roncesvalles abbey, where monks tended to pilgrims for many centuries:
Its doors are open to the sick and well,
Not only to Catholics, but to pagans also.
To Jews, heretics, beggars and the indigent,
In brief, to both the good and the profane.
The Camino today is far closer to that ideal than to the other. At its best, maybe, it doesn’t even draw firm boundaries between the good and the profane, and really does “embrace all as brothers [and sisters],” as an apparent mistranslation of the hymn reads.*
In any case, modern pilgrims seem to have chosen Santiago Peregrino, the pilgrim who’s always ready to lend a helping hand, to represent us, and largely banished Santiago Matamoros to the past.
Which is not to say that we pilgrims are perfect.
Far from it. We’re human, after all. We can be grumpy and petty, irritable and competitive. Some of us loathe each other.
Then again, some of us get over it, at least some of the time. I have fond memories of sitting in a meseta bar with a German pilgrim for hours—me drinking wine and him drinking beer. We admitted we’d disliked each other since we met a few days before. By the end of that afternoon, we were friends.
On balance, when I was on the Camino I saw far more of the goodness of people than I do in everyday life.
This is partly, I suspect, because I—and a lot of other pilgrims—needed help then far more than we do in our everyday lives. That gave people a chance to be kind.
* * *
William Ury says terrorism involves treating a stranger as an enemy, while Abraham’s legacy is the opposite: treating a stranger as a friend.
And the walking is part of that. As Ury points out, it’s harder to fight when you’re travelling in the same direction, side by side.
That’s an oversimplification, but there’s still a lot of truth to it. Maybe another part of the reason for the camaraderie between pilgrims on the Camino is because, even though our motives and experiences might be totally different, we’re all moving together toward a common destination.
I’ve been talking with a lot of pilgrims lately, over the phone or by e-mail. I haven’t met most of them in person, but I feel an immediate connection with them.
Walking the Camino was one of the most important experiences I’ve had, and they know what that’s like.
We share a story.
* * *
When I was walking the Camino, I met a white-haired Italian named Angelo in the kitchen of a Pamplona refuge.
None of the rest of us at the table spoke Italian, and he didn’t speak English or French or Danish, but a French Canadian woman talked with him—and translated for him—using a few Italian words mixed with Spanish and French.
Angelo, through his Canadian translator, waxed enthusiastic about the pilgrimage. All the world’s leaders, he said, should have to walk the Camino. He was sure it would lead to peace.
I have to admit I was rather dubious about sleeping in a bunk next to, say, a snoring George Bush (this was a few months before the last election) or Canada’s own Stephen Harper. But maybe Angelo had a point.
Maybe he was saying the same thing William Ury says in his talk about Abraham’s Path.
After you’ve walked beside someone—once you’ve shared a story—it’s harder to see her as the enemy, and easier to see him as a friend.
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* Regarding the translation of the hymn from La Pretiosa, I found the Latin version: “Porta patet omnibus, infirmis et sanis, non solum catholicis verum et paganis, judeis, hereticis, ociosis, vanis, et, ut dicam breviter, bonis et profanis.” My own knowledge of a few Romance languages and a tiny bit of Latin, together with help from on-line dictionaries, unfortunately suggests the translation I use is more accurate than the “embraces all as brothers” line.